Thursday, October 4, 2012

Tampa City Council talks for hours about surveillance cameras, but not much happens

Posted By on Thu, Oct 4, 2012 at 1:04 PM

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On Thursday, Tampa City Council members spent more than two hours discussing whether or not the leftover RNC security cameras should stay in downtown. By the end of the meeting, the only conclusion was to have the Council's attorney sit down with the city attorney to craft a potential ordinance for how the cameras will be used.

Last March, the Council voted to approve a $2 million contract for the Tampa Police Department to purchase 78 cameras to be used for security purposes during the RNC. There was little room for discussion, as Police Chief Jane Castor rushed the item onto,l the agenda, claiming it was urgent. At the time, city attorney Jim Shimberg said that after the convention he would be prepared to introduce an ordinance for future camera use.

But Shimberg has done nothing of the sort, alienating members of the Council. Two weeks ago, the issue went before the board for the first time since the conclusion of the convention, and neither Shimberg nor Castor were in attendance, angering council members (the two apologized this morning).

The bigger problem for council members is that they are essentially impotent. Last winter, after they approved the purchase of the cameras on a 6-1 vote — Mary Mulhern dissented, as she again reminded everyone today — they gave up their power to control what happens to the cameras.

The discussion began with Chief Castor giving the raw statistics of the number of cameras in use and their costs, which can be expensive if they are to be moved, something the Council talked about doing at the last meeting.

Castor said moving the cameras if they are inside what she called a mesh network would cost $12,000. If the cameras had to be constructed outside the mesh network, the costs would be between $20,000-$30,000.

She said they could be installed in parking garages, where they would focus on cashier pay stations. She said it's not feasible to place mobile cameras in parts of town such as East Tampa — where they'd be used to catch people who are illegally dumping items — but that covert cameras, which cost $500, could do the same thing and be placed upon request.

Councilwoman Lisa Montelione wants to create a committee to evaluate camera use and effectiveness. She said she wants the committee so when the maintenance contract comes up next year (that year has yet to begin because the TPD hasn't signed the one-year contract), there would be information for the council to review.

Shimberg gave only a half-hearted response that such a committee would be welcomed by Mayor Bob Buckhorn or the TPD.

Councilwoman Mary Mulhern described the whole conversation as "too little, too late." She reiterated her contention that one particular study done in England showed conclusively that surveillance cameras do little to nothing to prevent crime, except move it to other areas of a city. Castor disputed the idea that focusing attention on one part of the city meant crime shifts elsewhere, commenting on the fact that crime has gone down dramatically in Tampa throughout the past decade because of policing patterns conducted by the department (not referring to cameras as being a part of that).

Councilman Harry Cohen said he was concerned about the unintended consequences of the cameras, such as video recordings being subject to public record requests.

"I think because we approved so quickly we never got into the fundamental issues if we want to go down this road as a society," he said.

Chief Castor responded that in the YouTube era, everyone has a smartphone, therefore everyone should expect to be filmed when they're out in public. But that response didn't please Mulhern, who said it's a different ballgame when the government does the filming.

Councilman Mike Suarez also had several concerns, saying he wanted to have a written policy in place to ensure there would be no abuse by the police in surveilling people.

Ultimately, the Council opted on a 6-1 vote (with Mulhern dissenting) to have its attorney, Martin Shelby, work with Shimberg on what type of ordinance they can create that wouldn't violate the powers of the mayor or the police department. He also informed them that they could pass an ordinance that the mayor might veto, but they then could vote to attempt to override.

Before the discussion, a handful of people spoke in front of the Council to criticize the cameras. ACLU president Mike Pheneger said it was "inherently creepy" for the government to be watching people, and bemoaned the fact that the public has become "almost passive" in their resistance to the the camera's widespread usage.

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